Thursday, September 3, 2009

[some corny pun using the word "felt"]

I probably owe the Smithsonian a little something after so callously lamenting the injustice being perpetrated on the Hope Diamond, but I wanted to tell you about this anyway. I never did say much about the Fashioning Felt show at the Cooper-Hewitt Museum. Now I'm glad I didn't. Yesterday I had probably the best tour I've given the entire time I've been there. Not so much because I was so good, although I've gotten very comfortable with the material, I did very much feel on the ball, and I think everyone had a great time.

It was when we got to the installation by Janice Arnold in the conservatory (unfortunately, her website is under construction at the moment, but definitely bookmark it), which was commissioned for the show.
--Photo courtesy American Craft Magazine.
A yurt is a traditional Mongolian dwelling made of felt.

--Photo courtesy TrekEarth.
Arnold's piece, a palace yurt, is a sort of modern interpretation of a fancier dwelling that would've been used by the likes of Ghengis Khan. There are no actual palace yurts extant, so we don't really know exactly what they looked like. Well, I have everyone sitting around the conservatory, people are asking questions, and this woman pops her head around the corner of the entrance, saying "I think I might be able to answer technical questions." I didn't doubt it. It was Janice Arnold herself. Score!

It's not to say I don't have wonderful moments of kismet at Lincoln Center, like taking a group into the Koch Theater and all of a sudden, as if on queue, New York City Opera decides to launch into a full dress rehearsal of "Libiamo ne'lieti calici" from La Traviata, probably one of the most incredibly beautiful pieces of music ever composed.

That's Franco Zeffirelli's film of it (brilliant, and I adore the woman shoveling food into her face at 1:35). When that happened, I had to quickly conceal a tear before we left, and there was another gentleman obviously similarly moved. But there's just always so much going on at Lincoln Center, those moments happen practically every day. These kind of moments are so valuable at the museum.

It was also the fact that I had such a large group, my final count was somewhere around twenty-five people, which is somewhat large for a smaller museum with shows of relatively specialized interest. In other words, it wasn't like it was one of those days where I'm lucky if there are three people joining the tour.

She shook my hand, said I was doing a fantastic job--such a great compliment coming from an expert like her--and joined us to answer questions. Felting no doubt requires a lot of elbow grease, and I later joked that her handshake was surprisingly powerful.

She had such interesting things to say. She, Claudy Jongstra, and Kathryn Walter (who, coincidentally, worked with Diller, Scofidio + Renfro, supplying felt for Alice Tully Hall and has a piece in the show designed for the firm's offices) were the only three artists in the show we actually got to speak with, and the first time talking to Arnold had been pretty limited because she was working and so were we. It was fantastic to be able to talk to her at such greater length and ask all the in-depth questions that had come to me over the past few months. I told her, too: I almost wish this had happened sooner rather than three days before the show closes.

She basically went into all kinds of tales about her process and exactly how the piece was made. She told us a couple things that she said she'd not told anyone else, and some things I wish I'd known all along, like how the pattern of cloth on the west wall is based on a microscopic view of wood cells blown up to huge proportions. There were also a lot of ways I wasn't aware of that the piece conceptually refers to the culture of Mongolia, where she'd spent some time studying traditional felt-making techniques.

Then there was the fact that, due to condensation in the wintertime, the glass walls of the conservatory literally stream with water down to the benches around its perimeter. There's always pools of water all over the floor and everything. Arnold was concerned about it a bit, but discovered that the felt (which was undamaged, being a wet process in its creation) equalized the humidity and climate inside that room. It was all very fascinating, and those were some seriously lucky tourists.

There was this one guy who really got on my nerves, though. He was one of these old guys with a Question Machine Gun. I've dealt with these types many times before, and there were a couple of women doing the same thing on that tour, in fact. But basically they have some kind of comment or question for everything that comes out of your mouth, like you can see it on their face the whole time you're talking that they're just DYING to interject some juicy bit of goodness into the conversation. It's to the point where, unless I'm going to be rude about it, it's almost impossible to get a complete thought out or even stay on any kind of coherent track. They have this impeccable knack for interrupting me to ask something I was going to tell them anyway within the next thirty seconds, if they'd just calm down and listen that long.

I say at the very beginning of every single tour, felt is the oldest textile known to humankind, it's probably around 10,000 years old, and may be as old as 15,000 years old. Question Guy was there to hear that. Halfway through, he says to me, "so how old iiiisss this process," as if adding the phrase "this process" were going to somehow magically change the answer. I told him again.

Then, while we're talking to Arnold, he wants to know, yet a third time, "so how old iiisss this process." Arnold's answer was a bit more complete than mine, but essentially the same. She said we don't really know, that they're always finding older and older pieces of felt, and that the oldest found so far is around 9,000 years old. I said twice before. I'm thinking, "dude" (neither of us were wearing cowboy hats, but), "do you think I'm lying to you, or do you think I'm just making stuff up as I go along? Either way, you're wasting everyone else's time asking the same crap over and over again." Sigh.

The whole thing was being recorded on video, and--I'm kind of excited to see this--they were taking time-lapse photos of the space throughout the entire day so you can watch how it plays with the shifting sunlight. Both, as far as I understand, will be on Arnold's website. My voice may even end up in the final edit, so you can go and hear what very intelligent and charming things I have to say. She also said she's putting a book together all about the experience of doing this piece. When it's released, perhaps I'll make a small addendum to this post.

Labor Day, as I hinted above, is your last chance to see Fashioning Felt. I highly recommend coming to see it. I've found it immeasurably, surprisingly inspiring.

This seems as good a place as any to say what a truly wonderful place this is to work. For anyone who doesn't know, it's the Carnegie Mansion, designed by Babb, Cook & Willard and built in 1901:
Click for larger.
--All Carnegie Mansion and neighborhood photos ©2009, Ryan Witte.

It was much farther north than where most of the wealthy lived on Fifth Avenue, there was really nothing else up this far north at the time. They chose this site on purpose for that reason, because Carnegie's young wife, Louise, was a gardener, and they wanted to have ample room for this large private garden. That's also why there's a conservatory.

But more than that, the houses that were built in the neighborhood, afterwards known as "Carnegie Hill" as a result of this mansion, are incredible. I was standing outside one beautiful day and it just struck me all of a sudden. This was the house of Otto Kahn (who, coincidentally, was director of the Metropolitan Opera for a short time and was one of the early figures in the century-long saga of it arriving at Lincoln Center), built by J. Armstrong Stenhouse and C. P. H. Gilbert in 1918, which is now an elementary school, as far as I know:

This is the Burden Mansion by Warren & Wetmore, to the east of the Kahns', built in 1907 and now also part of the school:

And to the east of that, the Hammond Mansion by Carrere & Hastings, also from 1907 and now the Russian Consulate (by the way, there's practically always a big group of Russians lined up out the door, trying desperately to get out of the United States. I'm sure it was far longer when Bush was still in office):

While I was standing there looking at them, and especially the Burden house, which I think is an absolute masterpiece, something occurred to me. People visiting New York City from the back woods of Kansas or wherever never get to see things like this. I'm not saying that other parts of the country don't have stunning vernacular architecture. But American Colonial, even for the very wealthy, was typically so much more austere. We in this city, on the other hand, have it around us all the time, every day. Often I think we just walk right past without looking or giving this beauty a second thought. I obviously travel in aesthetically knowledgeable circles (I couldn't have it any other way), so it's not quite so bad. But I don't think it would be possible to appreciate our city's architecture too much.

©2009, Ryan Witte

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